Cassandra Wilson – Sowing New Seeds

Cassandra Wilson

For all of the welcoming warmth of her instantly recognisable voice, Cassandra Wilson has never taken the safe option in a career that now spans almost three decades. From her key phase with New York’s M-Base collective in the 1980s, she’s journeyed far and wide through jazz, popular song, country and soul. Yet, as she tells Stuart Nicholson, taking on the musical and personal legacy of Billie Holiday on Coming Forth By Day, required an aptly fearless approach to capture the true spirit of this most iconic of jazz singers

When Ed Gerrard,Cassandra Wilson’s manager, started talking to music business insiders about her upcoming record project he immediately sensed a buzz of anticipation, “When you say to people, ‘We’re going to do a Billie Holiday record – and by the way we’re going to use the producer for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and a couple of Bad Seeds are on the record,’ they go ‘What?!’” he recalled. And while Holiday tributes have been done before, and will certainly be done again, it’s hard to imagine a better realised hommage than Coming Forth By Day, Miss Wilson’s debut on the Columbia Legacy label.

Released in 2015 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth, the album has been a long time coming from the one contemporary singer who has consistently prompted expectation – perhaps unrealistically – of raising the sunken treasures of Holiday’s memory. “I think the most important thing about Billie Holiday is that she lived her life on her own terms, and her music and her style, her approach to her music is very singular, very unique,” Wilson reflects. “She had a voice she believed in, and she never swayed from that, she was able to interpret songs and place them inside her voice, her life, her story, and there was no compromise, it was always about being true to her voice and her genius, because she was an incredible musician, not just a singer, but a great musician.”

 

The most important thing about Billie Holiday is that she lived her life on her own terms
– Cassandra Wilson

 

Following in Billie Holiday’s footsteps is not to be taken lightly – first there’s the burden of expectation such endeavours inevitably prompt (the majority of which ultimately disappoint), then there’s the way Holiday’s songs tend to swallow the identity of those who attempt to interpret them, and thirdly is the challenge of making songs that come date-stamped in a bygone era sound relevant today. Wilson effortlessly transcends these problems, imposing her own imprimatur on each song while simultaneously reinventing them for the 21st century. “That’s part of the gig, to have a fresh voice,” she says. “When you’re paying homage to a mentor, or someone who has influenced you, it’s very important you maintain and follow your individual voice because that’s always very important in this music. We knew we had to do something different, we couldn’t just revisit Billie Holiday and regurgitate the usual things that jazz musicians do. If you want to pay tribute to someone as radical as Billie Holiday was in her day, you have to be radical in your day. You can’t be safe, you have to take chances, and you have to reach for those elements in the music that are going to really help to create an environment that would represent her spirit.”

Cassandra wilson

Just like her move to Blue Note records in 1993, when producer Craig Street helped redefine her artistic vision with the seminal Blue Light Till Dawn, Wilson’s move to Columbia Legacy sees Nick Launay’s production of Coming Forth By Day revealing fresh facets of her musical personality. However, despite his initial enthusiasm for the project, Launay hesitated before taking on the challenge, “Cassandra’s manager Ed Gerrard said Cassandra wants to make a really adventurous record and I thought, ‘I’m definitely interested but I don’t know if I can do that kind of record’ – I’d never done a jazz record,” he recalled. “I just didn’t want this to be an experiment for me, and totally mess the whole thing up. But then I thought to make this work in an unusual way it would be great to bring in musicians who are not of that scene cos’ we’re not going to prearrange, it’s going to be all about getting great people in the room and jamming.”

The musicians Launay lined-up included T Bone Burnett, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; two thirds of the Bad Seeds rhythm section with Thomas Wydler on drums and Martyn P. Casey on bass; and long-term Wilson collaborators Jon Cowherd on piano and Kevin Breit on guitar. Together they interpret 11 songs that span Holiday’s career, plus one original. They are a strong and powerful representation of Holiday’s oeuvre, ranging from ‘All of Me’, a favourite of homesick G.I.’s in World War II, to Holiday classics such as ‘Don’t Explain’ penned by the singer herself, and ‘Good Morning Heartache’ that was specially written for her by pianist Teddy Wilson’s wife Irene Higginbotham. Nick Launay then played a wild card, “I asked myself who is the craziest arranger I know, and it has to be Van Dyke Parks,” he said. Pop aficionados rightly hold Parks in awe for his work with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, The Byrds and Little Feat among others and Wilson readily praises Parks’ string arrangement of ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ as among the album highlights, “It’s mind blowing,” she says while also citing ‘Good Morning Heartache’ and the final track on the album, ‘Last Song’ as among her favourites: “‘Last Song’ is for Lester [Young] – that’s one we all wrote in the studio together,” she adds.

Significantly, Wilson also does her version of perhaps the most famous of all Billie Holiday songs, ‘Strange Fruit’. She had previously recorded this on 1995’s New Moon Daughter (Blue Note), but here she sounds less in Holiday’s shadow, reflecting more of her own emotional response to the lyrics that comes bound up in what she calls “ancestral imagery”: “Jazz grows out of a certain language developed in the Americas as a result of the slave trade, so there are pieces and snippets of information that arrive on these shores, although all names are taken, spirituality is taken away, history is taken but there are some things that remain inside – deep inside – and this is the part of the arcane information that we retain.”

It is perhaps here that Cassandra Wilson finally becomes the singer she has always wanted to be, a singer of the past, the present and the future. “It was a great honour for me to do this for Billie Holiday,” she says. “I want people to remember her as a great artist and I want them to enjoy the music and hopefully have as much fun listening to it as we had making it.”

Discover...

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This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

Photos by Mark Seliger

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